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Yoga Assists and Consent

by NinaI actually learned to teach yoga asanas with my hands. That’s because I spent several years assisting other teachers, including Rodney Yee, Donald Moyer, Shari Ser, Jason Crandell, and Baxter Bell, before I stood up in front of a class myself and gave verbal instructions. And, in those days, when you were assisting a teacher, you didn’t want to talk over the teacher while helping an individual student, so you would help them silently through gestures and hands-on adjustments to their bodies. So, I got very comfortable communicating with touch back then, from making feathery touches with my fingertips to bring awareness to a body part to making stronger adjustments, which I was taught to make by my teachers, which included pressing down firmly on a body part or even moving a body part. I intentionally tried to put love into every touch, and I often received compliments on my adjustments. However, once—and I still remember this with shame—I caused knee pain in a student doing an adjustment I’d been taught (I stopped doing that adjustment after that). Then, when I became a teacher myself, it turned out that my first regular class was teaching to an international group of UC Berkeley graduate students and their spouses, many of whom didn’t speak English very well, so I used my hands in those classes as well to communicate with actions things I couldn’t communicate with words. I confess that in those days using your hands to teach was so much a part of the “tradition” at the time, I never really thought about asking for a student’s permission first. But that was then. Now I understand that for many people hands-on assists or adjustments make them uncomfortable or worse. It can be triggering for people who have suffered trauma or abuse. And there are other people who just don’t want to be touched for any number of reasons! Then there have definitely been teachers out there who misuse the practice by giving adjustments that feel, well, more like caresses (to be honest, I have received those) or are too strong, which can be frightening and/or dangerous (in the one Anusara class I ever took, an assistant firmly pushed my upper spine toward the floor while I was in Downward-Facing Dog pose—I guess I wasn’t “melting my heart” enough to satisfy her—I never went back after that). So a given person might want to receive adjustments in one class but not in another, especially if the teacher is new to them.I’m not teaching asana classes right now. But despite the fact that it’s actually hard for me to imagine teaching without using my hands, I do think that if I was teaching now I’d want the explicit consent of each student before I touched them in any way. Right now, many teachers I know are verbally requesting permission each time they want to make a physical adjustment. But I’ve also noticed that there is now such a thing as “consent cards,” which students can simply place on their mats to let the teacher know whether or not they are open to receiving physical adjustments or assists. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea. How about you? What do you think of this idea? And what are your thoughts about this issue in general? I also realize now that just because I was “taught” an adjustment by a long-time teacher doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. So a while back I stopped doing those less than gentle assists that used to be part of my repertoire back in the day when we stood on each other’s thighs in Reclined Hero pose and things like that. P.S. If I’m a bit late to the party on this, I apologize. It’s probably because I haven’t been teaching lately and also haven’t been going to classes myself (I do practice regularly at home, though!).Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook and Twitter ° To order Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being, go to Amazon, Shambhala, Indie Bound or your local bookstore.For information about Nina’s upcoming book signings and other activities, see Nina’s Workshops, Book Signings, and Books.

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